BRAINTREE—“Quirk Works.” That slogan is as effective today as it was 37 years ago when a young entrepreneur named Dan Quirk bought the former Clark & Taber Chevrolet dealership in Braintree.
Quirk adopted the catchphrase with the help of a radio advertising salesman. “He suggested it. I thought it might work,” he recalls, “and it’s been with me ever since.”
That motto also describes its owner. Dan Quirk works; in fact, he loves his work.
Quirk started his career in cars when he opened a used-car lot in Lowell in 1973. That was an early indication of his entrepreneurial instincts since he’d already gone through the ranks to become a journeyman pipefitter.
Turning away from what looked like a secure future wasn’t easy. “Some of my oldest friends are from my pipefitting days,” he says today.
Still, he took that fork in the road, then another, and ….
“If you told me all this would happen, I’d never have believed it,” he says. “This” is his 17-outlet family of dealerships spread across Greater Boston, the South Shore, and Manchester, NH.
“This” also includes ancillary businesses such as the Quincy Auto Auction, an international auto parts business, and extensive real estate holdings, including 112 acres of the former Fore River Shipyard.
“I’ve been in the car business for 40 years now. I’ve learned you need better facilities than your competitors. And [in a lot of prime areas for business] there’s a shortage of land. Dealerships need space for service, shops, and just to make it convenient to do business. So at the end of the day you’re a real estate owner. Sometimes, when you see a promising parcel, it’s a wise move to buy it even though you don’t have an immediate use for it.”
Quirk has learned to ride the economic cycles. When the economy (and auto industry) went into a deep down cycle in 2008, he knew it was time to buy.
That’s when he expanded operations into New Hampshire, acquiring Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Buick, and GMC franchises in Manchester.
Quirk has seen the business change for the better as his operations expanded.
“The quality of today’s cars—every brand—is terrific. I remember the cars from 30 or 40 years ago, and the comparison isn’t even close.
“The least expensive car of today is light years ahead of the best car from 25 or 30 years ago.”
Quirk says that technology is the name of the game.
“The evolution of the automobile today is more about technology and electronics than styling,” he says. “That’s a good thing because most cars look alike because the designers are going for the most efficient aerodynamic shape.
“Buyers, especially younger buyers, are attracted by branding and what that car’s technology can do.”
Quirk, who is 63, taps into the youth culture.
“I’m fortunate that I had my children late. My daughters are 21 and 24. I learn from them.”
But his research isn’t limited to family.
“There are so many smart young people out there,” he says. “I’m always trying to tap into them.”
Quirk created a “Tech Team” of student interns from Cristo Rey High School in Dorchester. “They’re quick to learn about new car technologies, and we have them showing customers how everything works. It’s a great experience for the kids, learning about a business, technology, and dealing with people. It’s good for the customers, too.”
He also has college students interning and occasionally working on special projects.
One, a Northeastern sophomore, is working on drone technology to help with security on the company’s facilities.
“He has the drone in the air now,” says Quirk, “and it has the potential to cut one of our big expenses. We have 18 security vehicles out there 24/7.
“The young people are looking to build their resumes, make some money, and get experience,” he says. “They work hard and do a good job.”
Some work in the companies’ integrated marketing department, tending to public relations, digital and print advertising, and customer contact.
Quirk, who doesn’t Tweet or hang out on Facebook, knows his customers do and makes it part of the company’s efforts, saying, “You’ve got to brand yourself or you risk getting lost in the shuffle.”
Quirk doesn’t believe in unpaid internships and has a motto to prove it: “Free has no value” is one of his sayings.
Another motto is “No risk, no reward.”
“We’re not afraid to try things. If it turns out to be a mistake, we haven’t killed ourselves.”
One idea that worked was the Quincy Auto Auction he founded in 1989.
“We sell used cars at each dealership and at our separate pre-owned facility in Braintree. The auction is an independent business but it provides a service to all Quirk dealers and a lot of other dealers as well. It gives us the ability to be more efficient in moving our inventory.
“It used to be that a car was obsolete when it hit the 100,000-mile mark. Now, when you’ve got a good car, 100,000 is just the beginning. It’s ready to have another life. That’s one of the reasons we opened the auction,” he says.
Another Quirk-y idea that worked was the expanded parts business.
“When Oldsmobile quit making cars 10 years ago, we were left with thousands of parts. I had three truckloads of parts that we finally just junked,” he says.
If Oldsmobile’s demise had happened now, those parts would still be included in Quirk’s massive inventory, which is spread among the dealerships and separate warehouses in Mass. and New Hampshire.
“Today there are so many ways to market,” he says. “We have a tremendously successful eBay parts store that sends parts all over the world.”
Two missing brands in the Quirk portfolio are Honda and Toyota. “The opportunities never arose to add them, but I’ve no regrets,” says Quirk. “Today, all brands are good. We do well with domestics because it’s not necessarily the brand but how you relate to the customer.”
That’s involves a two-fold approach.
One is his employees. “Yes, our facilities are nice but our employees—more than 1,000—are our most important asset. I’m just a coordinator of activities. The real value of Quirk is the people who work here. Each of them is important.”
So is honesty.
“People rightfully get angry if you lie to them,” he says about the recent recalls across the industry, the biggest involving Toyota and GM. “But it seems they [recalls] have included every brand but Subaru. One benefit is that the greater transparency is creating a new standard of industry honesty. People will accept the news that something needs to be fixed.”
“The best part of the industry’s competition in recent years is that it raises the bar for everyone,” he says.
What does the future hold for Quirk & Co?
“Everyone in this business works on a succession plan. For now I want to work as long as I can breathe. There’s no part of this business that I don’t like. I like to think I’m tireless, and I’ve got no intention of retiring.”
That’s another example of how “Quirk Works.”Bill Griffith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrAutoWriter.